But between novelists, playwrights and philosophers, there are common skills. I've been reading Hemingway - for pleasure, and for my next book - and he exemplified at least one of these skills: receptivity.
Hemingway might've been an overbearing, deceitful prat at times. But the man listened, watched, and felt - he was alive to his surroundings, until the end (when madness robbed him of his gifts).
Here's a little passage from his Esquire piece, 'Monologue to the Maestro'. He is 'Your Correspondent'. He's talking to his ship's night-watchman, Maestro, or Mice for short. Maestro arrived in Key West from upper Minnesota to learn from the master. Here's a snippet of the master's reply.
Y.C.: Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don't be thinking what you're going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you're in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practise. And always think of other people.
Mice: Do you think I will be a writer?
Y.C.: How the hell should I know? Maybe you have no talent. Maybe you can't feel for other people. You've got some good stories if you can write them.
Mice: How can I tell?
Y.C.: Write. If you work at it five years and you find you're no good you can just as well shoot yourself then as now.
Mice: I wouldn't shoot myself.
Y.C.: Come around then and I'll shoot you.Mice: Thanks.
As well as being funny, this is true. Art thrives on experience: the two and fro of man and world, creature and environment. The artist - philosopher, novelist, playwright - must be keenly, acutely attuned to this play of people, landscape, and their relations. The artist has to be brimming with life; with all the details and nuance that make up our daily dealings. And the artist must watch how they grow, swell, loosen and tighten, decay and die; how the world moves, inside and out.
Importantly, this has nothing to do with old age - it has more to do with character than calendar years. Ernest Hemingway was my age when he wrote this, having already given us some of the finest short stories in English, and A Farewell to Arms.
We hear a great deal about Hemingway the boxer, fisherman and soldier - and rightly so. But his fiction flourished because these experiences were sensitively, patiently absorbed - and then digested. It's not only the fists and trigger finger that made the writer. It's the eyes, the guts, the skin, and all they take in.